I'm Single and Dating in My 30s — and This Is What I've Learned

As a 30-year-old woman fresh out of an eight-year partnership and called-off engagement, dipping my toes into the dating world felt daunting, but also thrilling. For one, "being on the apps" wasn't a thing before I was off the market, so I was excited to experiment. And I had always felt like I was missing out on the romantic adventures that my single friends described to me. That probably should have been my first clue that my relationship with my ex was unhealthy — but hey, I certainly uncovered more over time. Needless to say, my history with my ex affects how I'm (still!) learning about what I want in a partner and how to find it.

You are brilliant. So your inability to "fix" someone doesn't mean you aren't.

When it comes to dating — or, really, life — everyone has a unique experience. I'm a white, straight, cisgender woman seeking monogamy. So while I can't speak for everyone, I can share my encounters, which have informed my general outlook on dating in my 30s. Even so, I hope most people may be able to relate to one or two of the five theories I've subscribed to.

Full disclosure, and a bit of a spoiler alert: I don't think I have found The One, and I'm not sure that's what I'm searching for at this point in my life. But as corny as it sounds, I am looking for love. The beliefs I've come to accept here are, in a way, cautionary for me. They allow me to dive into dating while simultaneously protecting my heart as best as I can. They help me remember that it's OK to be a romantic person, but it's not OK to sacrifice boundaries. I am no expert, and I have by no means "figured it all out," so you don't have to be receptive to all of my advice.

However, I've developed enough self-love to put myself out there. I know that if a date doesn't lead to another date, which then leads to another date, then maybe to a relationship, or even marriage (it's been ingrained in our minds that this timeline is normal — but it isn't for everyone), then that's OK. After all, rain checks happen, one-night stands happen, and ghosting happens. But once you start to make yourself your own top priority, your self-confidence and self-worth will be obvious to everyone around you. If there's one thing I'm beginning to embrace more than any other on this list, it's that establishing contentment within yourself is essential for opening up to somebody else.

Ahead, find the five things I like to remind myself before going on a date.

1. You are never the exception to the rule.

I still remember being delighted to discover my first match on Hinge, especially because I thought he was really cute. As soon as we started chatting, he told me he was only looking for "something casual." After I agreed, he proceeded to ask me what area I lived in and immediately calculated how soon he could be there. "Like, to my house? Today?" I wanted to know. Didn't this person at least want to grab a drink first or get to know me? "Of course not, Sarah," my two best friends told me. "He just wants to have sex."

If someone says they want to keep things casual, you will not affect them differently.

I politely declined the offer, feeling disappointed. But my "match" continued to pursue me, and months later, we met in person. After we did, I felt like I liked him even more and even counted all the ways he had opened up to me, trying to convince myself I could be different to him — and that even if I wasn't, maybe I could be the chill, cool girl who wouldn't catch feelings. But I was lying to myself. Once I get to know people, they usually become important to me, and the longer I pretended to be apathetic, the more I was hurting myself.

A more recent "match" — someone I thought I could really see myself with — told me right away that he had commitment issues but that he wanted to change. I held onto that semblance of hope (it's one of his goals to become emotionally available!) the same way I ate up every word of the few text messages or voice memos we exchanged per week leading up to the next time I got to see him. Usually, these infrequent occasions were unplanned because he just "happened to be in the area."

My learning from these experiences: take people for what they tell you at face value. If someone says they want to keep things casual, you will not affect them differently — no matter how brilliant you are. (And yes, by the way, you are brilliant. So your inability to "fix" someone doesn't mean you aren't.)

Also: it takes a lot of time and work for people to change, or to attack their goals head-on. So if someone's truly serious about changing, you'll be able to see the effort — or the lack of it. If their time dedicated to you and behaviors toward you are not acceptable to you now, they won't be in the long run. Don't see people how you want to see them or how they tell you they want to be in the future; see them the way they are now.

2. Red flags are important. So are green ones.

Make a list of the qualities you're looking for in your ideal person, whether you want something long-term or short. You can go back to this list and update it on your own terms. The great thing about its existence is that when a situationship doesn't work out, you can remind yourself of the red flags that likely would've led to its demise sooner or later.

No, this doesn't always feel good, but it can be eye-opening. If you're not sure someone is meeting your expectations, reread your list of green flags and apply them to the person that you're seeing. The more they stray from the list, the more you should be distancing yourself.

Here's an example: for me, language can be a big turn on, and an even bigger turnoff. A quick DM that reads, "Yo when are u free?" is very different from a text or phone call that says, "What's your schedule like this week? I'd like to take you out again and I have a restaurant in mind that I think you'd enjoy."

It's OK to be a romantic person, but it's not OK to sacrifice boundaries.

It can work in a different way, too. Personally, I like to let someone know when I'm thinking about them in a positive way. But I've had quite a few guys either ghost me or politely express disinterest after I've done this, suggesting I was too eager. The lesson here isn't that I was wrong for verbalizing my feelings, it's simply that those people were not right for me. We just didn't mesh, and the end would have come eventually. But without my red flag/green flag list, I might have assumed I should change my behavior, rather than seeing it as a useful tool to weed out guys for whom "words of affirmation" are decidedly not a love language.

Also worth noting: if someone seems too good to be true (in other words, they're saying all the right things very quickly to a point where the feelings they're describing seem impossible at the current stage), that's a potential sign of love bombing, which is characterized by excessive affection that can lead to the recipient feeling dependent.

Once you start to approach dating as a nonpressure game with colored flags that both parties have the power to dole out, you'll be less susceptible to getting hurt. It sounds silly, but it's true. Your take on how the relationship is progressing is equally important to theirs.

3. Waiting to have sex DOES matter.

OK, hear me out on this one. I'm the first person to believe that you should have sex whenever you and your partner are both ready, whether that be on day one or date #402. But I also think that it's essential to know yourself and to make sure you're on the same page as your potential partner before sleeping together. While some people are OK with testing out their physical connection before an emotional one has developed — knowing that it never will — others aren't, and if you have mismatched expectations, the results can be incredibly hurtful.

I'm looking for a physical and emotional connection. I'm clear about this in my profile and my conversations. And yet several times I've matched with men who love "the chase" and view sex as their reward.

For instance, I once started talking to someone who told me he wanted to take me out to dinner upon our first exchange. But after a few days went by, he quickly resorted to inviting me over after he returned home from drinking with friends, promising he wouldn't fall asleep on me.

After turning him down once or twice, his best friend, whom I had also recently met, took a different approach. He showered me with compliments all night (he'd clearly combed through my Instagram to "get to know me"), bought me drinks, and picked up my Taco Bell order. I was disappointed with the quesadilla (yes, I was 30 years old before I learned that Taco Bell uses fake nacho cheese), but I was even more disappointed when he stayed until morning, asking me to cuddle and repeatedly mentioning how important it was to determine sexual compatibility as soon as possible.

We didn't have sex that night, and despite his behavior, I expressed that I wanted to see him again. And that was the last time I heard from him — even after reaching out myself. This kind of experience is why when I'm on the fence, I tend to wait a little longer, just to make sure we're both really on the same page.

Obviously, enthusiastic consent is key here. If you want to jump someone's bones, waiting for a few more dates or having a few more conversations to make sure they're really OK with a no-strings-attached situation is worth it; the same goes if you want to develop something serious and you want to make sure your partner has the same intention. After all, no matter what type of relationship you're in, developing trust over time is a crucial part of practicing safe sex.

4. Dating apps are a form of social media mostly used for entertainment.

A lot of us use social media apps to connect from behind a screen, which doesn't involve much commitment. As a 30-year-old in the modern world, it's important to remember that Hinge, Bumble, Tinder, et al. were designed to be fast-moving, which can cause an awful lot of pressure and impact mental health. They also make for a pretty large gray area when people don't know how to define what they're looking for, leading to disappointment when expectations aren't met.

I look forward to [swiping] every night before bed the way some people anticipate a game of Wordle or Candy Crush.

That's why pretty much everyone on the apps has been ghosted or has set up in-person plans that never actually came to fruition. It's quite rare to match with someone you're attracted to who also wants to take things to the next level by seeing you outside of their normal routine.

So don't take all those missed connections to heart. It's not personal. I once matched with someone who I texted incessantly for over 24 hours. I really enjoyed our banter and I felt like he did too. He started following me on Instagram, and I him, only to find myself sliding into his DMs months later to follow up on that one conversation we had: "So, are we ever going to meet up?" He left me on read.

Many people also just use dating apps to see who's out there or what other people are looking for. I was immediately unmatched merely minutes after connecting with someone because I said I was interested in more than just sex. I've met men who change their location every time they log onto Hinge because exploring is "just for fun," like people-watching at a café in a different city every day. And to be honest, swiping on the apps is both exciting and satisfying for me, too. I look forward to it every night before bed the way some people anticipate a game of Wordle or Candy Crush.

But that's why dating apps aren't for everyone. While there are some apps that will more often lead to actual meet-ups (many people will name Hinge as the top contender), the inconsistency is notable. If you're not OK with encountering people who aren't serious, you probably won't thrive with this method of dating.

For example, I have a best friend who's single but self-aware enough to know she wouldn't find the "art of swiping" to be gratifying. She feels that in her 30s, she should be harboring her energy to explore herself or spend time with friends, rather than becoming vulnerable to uncertain affairs. The same way some people don't use (or take breaks from) social media to protect their mental health, dating apps are one and the same.

5. Successful dating — aka relationship potential — is mostly dependent upon mental health.

As I alluded to in the beginning of this article, developing a sound relationship with yourself is crucial before opening up to someone else. Sure, you can learn a lot about yourself through dating. My first few experiences taught me that I can be an overanalyzer who constructs largely untrue narratives in my head when I'm feeling bored or unvalidated. (NBD, right?) But acknowledging this about myself also allows me to do the internal work I need to do in order to address my vices and adjust my outlook. It's easier said than done, and, like I mentioned, I'm not a professional. But talking to a therapist helps. And if therapy is not for you for whatever reason, then doing the things you must do on your own terms to process your emotions and/or past traumas is part of your responsibility as a dater.

While dating, I like to assume that most people are genuine and sincere. But I also bear in mind that they're all affected by our ever-changing, sometimes-disturbing, always-imperfect world. So be gentle with others the way you'd want them to be gentle with you. If a relationship doesn't feel like it's heading in the right direction, take a step back. This actually may allow the other person to reflect on how they feel with or without you, which can be a good thing. But most importantly, it is a way of creating space for yourself. And if you can't create space for yourself, you certainly won't be able to make room for a partner.